The One that Got Away

I know where I am, but I am not sure how I got here.

I am about a half-mile south of Mitchell Dam in Coosa County.  The bridge on Alabama 22 is half again as far away.  Nothing much on that highway but trees on either side.  Forests that would swallow it without a trace in a few years without human intervention.   You break down anywhere on that stretch between Rockford and Verbena and you better pray that you can flag down the occasional log truck, because your cell phone won’t have enough signal to be tracked by the government, let alone make a call.  But I can say that about most of Coosa County.  It is a good place for a person to simply disappear.  Many have.

I have stood on this spot before.  A narrow strip of Bermuda that is outrageously out of place, a little patch of grass that mimics a manicured subdivision lawn.  It is at the river’s edge.  A cabin is perched on the hillside up-slope.  The riverbank on this side of the Coosa is steep but gradual, and a few other cabins squat along the bank back toward the highway.  The one behind me was once a mobile home, but a skillful carpenter framed it in so that it looks like a cabin.  I know this because I tried to sell it for a man once, long ago.  An over-priced cabin with a secret.

The other side of the river is wild and beautiful.  A shear bluff 500 feet down to the waterline.  Limestone outcrops punctuate gnarled and stunted oaks and hickories, their branches heavy with Spanish moss that seems oddly out of place this far from the coast.

The current is swift here. Deceptively so.  The surface is gunmetal gray, but the roiling murky brown water hidden underneath swirls to the surface and then submerges again.

I watch this silently.  Try to read the river like an old manuscript.  In my mind’s eye I can see the Coosa when it ran wild before the dam.  Back when hundred-year floods sent sharecropper’s houses, barns, and livestock rolling past this spot toward the Gulf.

There are fish in this river.  Big fish.  Old men who sit out front of Kelly’s Crossroads store talk about catfish as big as Buicks below the dam, hovering silently in the murky depths.  Big blind yellow-cats that patrol the bottom at depths where no sunlight has ever penetrated.  Some will swear on a stack of Bibles that Alabama Power can’t hire divers to inspect the dam below the surface, because they know what’s down there.  They have heard the old stories of men who went down and never came back up.  About the one who made it back to the surface but spent the rest of his years wide-eyed and silent in a padded room up at the nervous hospital in Tuscaloosa. 

I suddenly realize that I am not alone.  I am standing next to a stranger.  He is casting into the depths with heavy tackle, long stout rod and spinning reel with 100-pound test line, the kind of rig you would see on a charter boat in the Gulf, or fishing for marlin in the Keys.

I watch him silently.  He casts upstream and lets the line run by with the current.  He doesn’t look at me.

“They’re running” he says.

I don’t recognize his accent, but it’s not one from around here.  His weathered face is partially hidden under a faded black Harley Davidson baseball cap.  A skull patch with “Live to Ride – Ride to Live” on the front.  Shirt sleeves rolled up above the elbows exposing tattoos of dark angels in hellish landscapes. 

“You ride?” I ask.  I’m looking for common ground.  “Maybe we can hook-up and ride to…”

He waves me off mid-sentence.

“Today we fish” he says.

In an instant I see something roll up through the surface.  Something big.  Great White shark big.  Flash of white belly in the twilight, the size and color of a beech log.  It is gone in the blink of an eye, slipping back silently below the current.

I wonder if he too saw, but he has turned away from me.  “Pick up that rig and cast upstream.  Let it float with the current.  Let her take it and run, then snatch that pole back with both hands to set the hook.  You best be ready when she hits it.”

I do as he says.  I see the bait plop through the surface and disappear.  I watch the line as it moves with the current and passes where I stand on the bank.  His line is still in the water, but he’s no longer watching it.  His is gaze has turned to me.

I feel the line tug.  Watch all the slack vanish and see the rod tip snap downward.

“Steady… steady… now. Snatch it!”

I feel every muscle in my body tense as I jerk the rod backwards with both hands.  The pull on the line is immovable.  I have hooked something so big that it is pulling me toward the murky water as it moves downstream.  In a millisecond I realize that I am the one who is hooked.  I am the one who is being played.  I am caught.  My mind screams “let go, let go,” but I cannot.

I turn to the man for help, but he is gone.  His voice is a whisper in my ear.  “You want to ride, son?  Let’s ride.  Now taste and see that the Lord is good.”

I begin to scream.

And then I wake up.

Needful Things

dry garden

Steps slow and measured.  Bare feet in the furrow, wisps of chalky dust trailing.  Tomorrow’s dew will settle the powder, but only until the sun peels the ridgetop. Until then a visage of singular puffs, the prints fossilized afarensis along some ancient Saharan riverbed.

The rows 36 apart, predestined and foreordained by the plow.  The seed carefully placed one to a finger-shaped hole. One to two inches deep, three to six between.  Covered by a little pat, the tenderness almost sentimental, usually reserved for the head of a good dog or a beloved grandchild.

Heart of a poet, not a farmer.

Daybreak after planting, the sky cracked-open.  Four inches in a matter of a few hours.  I stood in the midst and watched, a visage of some forlorn and demented scarecrow in a sea of swirling black feathers.  Sweat-soaked in the eve, rain-soaked in the morn.

The rows held fast, anchored to the earth by some unseen force.  Perhaps or perchance through a shaman’s trance, lips moving inaudible prayers or curses into a turbulent sky.

A week passed.  Two weeks.  Now three.

The sky sealed by a celestial signet.  Heat building each day, stacked like strata viewed bottom-up.

Such tender shoots.  Promises of ears, pods, and succulents.  Colors not green but off-green, wilting and folding inward like ancient scrolls exposed after centuries of desiccation.

Tomorrow dawn I stretch the hose.  Waters of survival only, creating a mirage of an oasis.  Temporal relief.  Water from pipes stave-off, but they do not nourish.  Treated is for human, rain for plants.

Sunday morning shower, rinse, repeat.

Odds makers book Monday at six in ten, but never wager against the home team, especially in Alabama.

I look heavenward and wait, my nursery of babes waiting to be suckled.

Howl

Clear skies and cold.  The moon 75 percent waxing gibbous.  Her zenith around 8:00 p.m.  Tonight he will be back, down in the bottom field, just 100 yards below the house.

The song begins with a few sharp barks, then a crescendo into a long, mournful soprano.  It will be answered from down in the swamp bottom first, then from another pack two ridges over, a double-chorus of Banshees, each with no individually distinguishable voice.  They could be 50 or even a 100, a ruckus that almost make a man feel surrounded in some Jack London tale.  Stoke-up the fire as the circle tightens.

My pit will lift his head, awakened from whatever canine dreams be on a winter night.  His growl low and deep, as if it originates somewhere around his back haunches.  Each lasts about ten seconds, followed by a single syllable “umph.”  A ridge of hair stands like a white belt from skull to tail, a sign that he is approaching the red line, where some other creature has produced in him a rage that will lead to fury.

I say “hush, now,” but he will not be quieted until the lone singer and his cacophony of answering choirs have ceased.  I need only open the door and he will charge off into the night.

I wonder, not being well-versed in coyote song.  Is he calling out of loneliness, or simply trying to locate the others, to gauge their distance?  A measuring of reasonable trot should he be so inclined to rejoin the evening rituals of the pack.

I like to think that it is a voluntary solitude.  Chosen, not forced.  Still a path back.  But I don’t know the ways of coyotes.

Sunday past I found a single arrowhead on a low, flat ridge above the creek bottom.  The first in twenty-five years of walking this land.  The parent rock just beside, cleft clearly visible where two pieces once fit together.  I looked again, for where there is one there are usually more, indicating a camp, even a temporary village.  But there were no more.  A single piece of flint shaped by a solitary man.

This lack of relics is curious.  I stand five miles as the crow flies from the last stand of the Creek Nation, fought to the last man, woman and child in the shallow bend of a river.  Stone points and wooden shafts no match for Andrew Jackson’s band of muskets.

Again I wonder.  Was the point-maker in voluntary solitude?  Still close enough to coyote-call over the low ridges.  Far enough to escape the evening banter.

Perhaps kindred spirits, man and coyote.  Seeking solitude, but always curious if others are still within range.

Maybe only on this patch of sacred land.  Solitude calls to solitude.

The sun is setting.  I have cornbread in the oven, Hoppin’ John in the pot.  I build my  evening fire against the chill.

Bully and I await the moon.  The evening performance will begin soon.

Tonight we howl.

 

Funeral for A Friend

smooth stones

The Irish call it a wake.  People in Alabama call it visitation.

It is a ceremony for the living, held in the presence of the dead.  A family stands like deer in the headlights as others shuffle by, hands extended, hugs offered.  A surreal numbness.  Asleep and awake.  Time pauses, hesitates, hovers like a feather on an imperceptible breeze.

It is early and the line is long.  I expected that.  He was well-known and well-liked.  I take my place behind a friend, a friend of this friend.  We swap stories between starts and stops.  Stories are the life, after all.  Tales true and untrue, embellished or plumbed on the mark.  They keep the memory for as long as they are told.  Longer if someone takes the time to write them down.  A life is brief.  Words are the substance of eternity.

I turn over the words in my mind as we approach.  Lift them like smooth stones from the creek bottom.  Feel their heft.  Discard some.  Put a few good ones in my pocket.  Keep one or two of the very best in my hand.

First, the wife.  A natural Southern beauty who has lost a partner she has loved since high school.  Built a business.  Raised a family.  Maintained a quiet gracefulness throughout all these last months-weeks-days-hours-minutes-seconds.  She thanks me for coming.  Her eyes radiate weariness in waves like heat from Alabama asphalt in August.

“I’m very sorry,” I say.

The son is a big strapping guy, broad-shouldered and handsome.  Strong handshake,  pretty wife.  Recently passed the Bar.  The future will be much brighter than the present.

“I’m sorry about your dad,” I say.

Then momma.  I have met her on a few occasions, but I don’t recall ever having a direct conversation with her.

I am not prepared for momma.

“Ma’am I don’t know if you remember me, but I’m –”

She stops me cold.  “Of course I remember you.”

And then a remarkable thing.  This sweet little lady I hardly know puts her arms around me and lays her head on my shoulder.

“It wasn’t supposed to be like this.  I told him, ‘you can’t go before me.’  It’s not right.  It’s not supposed to be this way.”

What does a man say to such as this?

Should I quote some cherry-picked Bible verse suitable for the occasion?  “Let not your heart be troubled…”

Perhaps a platitude.  “The Lord works in mysterious ways,” or “God must still have something important for you to do.”

Maybe something just downright stupid, like “I know how you feel.”

I am at a loss.  A man who places such value in words is without a good one.  Hands empty, pockets turned-out.

“Yessum,” I say.

It’s the best I can do in the moment.  It’s the best I can do now.

Nocturnus

waltz of death

Somewhere in the darkness.  I know not the hour, for there is no bedside analog, nor the ticking and tolling of the hour and half-hour that marked the passage of night from the mantle of my youth.  I may be awake or asleep, or in some space between where the conscious and subconscious dance the Valse triste, a bony hand lightly placed in the small of his fleshy partner’s back.  A light film of dust arises from the shuffle of sinew and bone across this ancient ballroom floor.

Everyone will waltz if they have seen enough sunsets.  The very young may be spared.  Not enough memories.  Balance sheet heavy on happiness, the burden of sadness and regret entered in pencil in the margin of their thin ledger.

Thirty-seven years gone by.  Few dreams of him until lately.

He is as I remember him, the age at which he passed.  I suppose it is cognitively impossible to remember someone older than they were, even more impossible to see yourself older than they.  I am younger in these dreams, even though the timeline is skewed or bent beyond the linear.

She is there too.  Young.  Aloof.  Oblivious.  Too pretty and unfettered to notice my presence in the shadows.  Or perhaps I know that she does, and this is the wound that will not heal.

These dreams are always a slant-wise remembrance, youthful sorrow.  More often the learning of sorrow, for such must be learned by the young.  The loss of an innocence, a summation or accumulation of singular events that make a young heart old before its time.

Always a moment, just when my heart begins to break, that I notice that he is at my side.  Never a word.  No expression.  No comfort or advice.  Just present.

I sometimes awake in a cold sweat, bearings lost for the moment, a solitary traveler seeking a trail-sign — a broken branch, a boot-print.  Passage through the dripping fog and darkness of an ancient forest.  My breath heavy.  Heart pierced.

In the light of day I am told that there is no point in looking back.  Best not go there.  Give no lodging to regrets.  The past cannot be altered and my time is thin.  She tells me I am beyond the mid-point, that I should focus on the days I have left.  No sense sifting through the ashes, looking for relics either happy or sad.  Eyes forward.  Make memories for those you will leave behind.

This is cheerful advice, meant-well and well-paid.  But the truth is our days past are all we do have.  A summation.  The one true mystery of the quotient.  Because a word spoken cannot be brought back across the lips onto a sharp tongue.  A sight will not be unseen, nor a sound unheard.  Acts forgiven, yes, but never forgotten.

A man cannot un-think a thought.

And so I am left with him in the night, unsettled and wondering at the meaning of his presence in this time and place, after so many years of absence.  Is he here to witness the sum of my sorrows, or simply to remind that I will be joining him soon?